Originally Sent: 3/12/2015

HSLDA Homeschooling a Struggling Learner

March 12, 2015

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How Understanding Executive Functions Helps Your Child

By Joyce Blankenship
HSLDA Special Needs Consultant

“I’m sorry, Mom, I just lost track of the time ….”

“I know we went over my writing assignment directions, but I just don’t know where to begin ….”

“Gosh, I don’t know how I could have forgotten my backpack at co-op!”

“I don’t know why I blurted that out in youth group tonight. It just popped into my head and I said it!”

About the Author

Joyce BlankenshipLearn more about our special needs consultants. Joyce Blankenship

Do any of these comments sound familiar to you? These common scenarios illustrate examples of children who struggle with weak executive functioning skills.

Executive functions are a set of mental skills that include the ability to initiate work, plan and organize, remember information, set goals, generate problem-solving strategies and demonstrate cognitive flexibility, emotional control, and self-monitoring.

According to Cooper-Kahn and Dietzel, authors of Late, Lost and Unprepared: A Parents’ Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning, the executive functions serve a “command and control” function, and can be viewed as the “conductor” of all cognitive skills. We use these skills when we prepare a meal, write an essay, socialize at a party, plan a vacation, or buy a used car. In short, executive functions help us manage the practical demands of our daily life.

The development of executive functions is related to the process of the brain maturing and also to experience. The rate of development differs from child to child, just as no two children’s physical development is exactly the same. Many kids with learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, and other developmental disabilities will experience executive weaknesses.

Although there are other brain regions responsible for these mental control skills, the frontal and prefrontal lobes of the brain are the primary “headquarters” of executive function. The frontal and prefrontal areas usually don’t fully develop until the mid-20s, and for people with delays in these areas, development can continue into the early 30s! Keep this in mind when you wonder why your 13-year-old daughter just can’t pull it togethre … again!

Initiation

At one time or another, each of us has put off something that needed to be done. For kids with executive weakness, the frequency and intensity of this behavior is on a different scale. Many kids who have a difficult time initiating an activity also have a problem with planning and organizing. They are overwhelmed with the task and have no idea where to begin. (In order to empathize with your child —think filing taxes each year!)

Here are some ways that you can come alongside your child to help strengthen initiation:

1. Break down the task into smaller chunks, making sure the first step in the task is very clearly stated. When you ask your son to clean his room, provide him with a checklist of tasks needed to be completed. For a history project, list the steps to be taken from beginning to end of project. When working on a math word problem, break down into four steps: operation, information, number sentence, solution sentence.

2. Develop schedule and routines. For example, set up a daily time to begin schoolwork that is consistent. Give your child a copy of his school schedule each day. (For an older student, give him the week’s schedule.) Sit down together with your child each day and review his assignments, planning how long you think each activity is going to take.

3. Start the activity with your child. For schoolwork, talk through the assignment and sit with your child until he has started his work. For chores, make sure your child understands what is expected of him. If he is to rake the front yard, show him where the rake is and supervise his work. This may require more work on your part at the beginning, but as your student becomes better at initiation, it will pay off in the end.

4. Use games and rewards. Play “Beat the Clock” to measure how long it takes your child to start the task once you have assigned it. If he improves on his best time, give him a special treat at lunch.

5. Use cues. Cue your student to begin a task by setting an alarm or using a timer. When the alarm sounds, it is time to begin the task.

Planning and Organization

Some children have developmental delays in their ability to independently plan and organize their assignments, belongings, and even their thoughts. On the outside, they may appear to be lazy and unmotivated. But it is important for us, as parent-teachers, to understand that their disorganization is most often not due to a character flaw or lack of interest in performing well.

As author Cooper-Kahn states, “People with weaknesses in planning and organization have trouble independently imposing structure and order on tasks and on ideas.”

Your role as parent-teacher is to teach and model strategies to help your child learn to organize and plan. Some kids may resist learning and implementing these new strategies, but after practicing on a continual basis, the strategies will become routine. Your child will see for herself how her organization skills have improved her life, both academically and socially. Try some of these ideas for improving your child’s organizational thinking:

1. Use checklists. Let your child know that checklists are his friend! Creating a list is a vital part of breaking a task into smaller size bites that your child can handle. Visual checklists can be used for chores ( post a list on how to clean the bathroom on the bathroom mirror; for younger kids—use photo charts or pictures); getting ready for soccer practice ( laminate list and keep it in the soccer bag); and for school assignments. Let your child physically check off each step, as it will give him a sense of accomplishment!

2. Walk through the planning process with your child and model the planning process by talking it though out loud.

Life-skills project—work with your student to create a very specific list of the steps needed to complete the project. For example, if she is planning a birthday party, her first step would be to choose a date. Next, she may list the kids she wants to invite, and so on. For a school project, divide the tasks into daily steps, and enter these on the calendar or planner, adding project deadlines.

3. Teach time management. Since many kids with executive functioning deficits do not have a good sense of time, these skills need to be taught and reinforced daily. Try using some of these ideas:

Use a calendar or planner. Keeping a calendar is one of the essential tools for organizing time and activities, both social and academic. It is one of the primary tools that I use for planning my daily life. To help my daughters gain an understanding of the concepts of days, months and years, I gave each of my daughters a colorful calendar at a young age. Together, we filled in special birthdays and holidays. When she was able to read on her own, I gave my child a daily schedule of her school activities. She really enjoyed checking off each completed task!

By middle school age, give your student his planner where he can record his daily, weekly and monthly assignments. Teach him to color code assignments, using red ink for upcoming tests, blue ink for long-term projects, black ink for daily schoolwork and green in for fun activities.

For kids with attention/and or memory difficulties, be sure to use a month-at-a-glance calendar so that he can get the “big picture” of the month’s activities/assignments.

Spend time with your student reviewing the daily assignments in his planner, including the amount of time projected to finish each one.

Let your child practice estimating time by guessing the amount of time a family or school activity takes, and then timing himself to see how close he is to his estimate. Kids with organizational weaknesses often think that getting ready for softball practice or completing a math assignment will take less time than it really does. Have your child record his guess times and actual times on a worksheet in order to increase his awareness of time.

Encourage your child to wear a watch and remind her throughout the day to check the time. For example, ask her what time it is now and how long until she needs to get ready for her next activity.

4. Teach the use of tools and technology that help to compensate for organizational weaknesses.

Visual maps, either hand-written or computer generated, are helpful for many people. Visual mapping programs let the user brainstorm ideas in a visual format, and then convert it to outline form. Inspiration, Kidspiration, and Mindjet MindManager are three such programs.

There are some wonderful visual support tools on the market that help make the passage of time concrete to a student. Check out the Time Timer, the Time Tracker Visual Timer and Clock, as well as the WatchMinder3.

Cue your student to begin a task by setting an alarm or using a timer. When the alarm sounds, it is time to begin the task. Let your child time herself to see how long it takes her to clean her room. Play Beat the Clock by letting her try to beat her best time!

Older kids can use smart apps, such as Todo by Appigo, iStudiez Pro which includes a calendar, class planner, assignment dates, etc., built-in iPhone apps such as Calendar and Reminders. iPhone has three apps that allow you to text notes to yourself, record voice reminders, and use a reminder service and memory aid: EverNote, ReQall, Easy Task.

5. Incorporate brain-building therapies that strengthen executive functions.

  • Cog-med is a computer program that specifically targets working memory and attention.
  • Brain Builder is brain-training software designed to improve memory, attention and learning.
  • Equipping Minds creates individualized brain fitness programs to help improve memory, attention, critical thinking, and other learning processes.

In this newsletter, we have mainly discussed the two executive skills of initiation and organization/planning. It is encouraging to note that the entire array of executive skills are related, often overlapping each other. As you work with your child on improving one particular set of executive skills, you will very likely see progress in other abilities. For example, a child who has learned to self-monitor will be more organized in his schoolwork, and become less impulsive. If a child’s working memory improves, than planning will become more second nature, as the steps of a process can now be more easily remembered.

From my personal experience with my own children who have executive function difficulties, I understand how frustrating it can be to homeschool a child with these struggles. Things don’t get done on my time frame, and life is not as organized as I would have it. But I have learned to keep a sense of humor, daily asking the Lord for patience and grace, keeping in mind that my child is much more than the sum of her executive functions.

Above all, I remember that my child was wonderfully and purposefully created by our gracious, heavenly Father who does all things well!

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. Eph. 2:10

Resources

Late, Lost and Unprepared: A Parents’ Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning by Dr.Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Dr. Laurie Dietzel

Thinking Organized: Helping Kids Get organized for Home, School and Play by Rhona M. Gordon

Teaching Teens with ADD, ADHD & Executive Function Deficits by Chris A Zeigler Dendy

HSLDA’s struggling learners page Resources page Neurodevelopmental Therapy

Thinking Organized website

TimeTimer—This product makes the passage of time visible plus has an optional audible signal.

WatchMinder 3—the programmable, vibrating wristwatch that cues you throughout the day

Time Tracker Visual Timer and Clock

Cogmed

Brainbuilder

Equipping Minds

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“Homeschooling a Struggling Learner” is a newsletter of the Home School Legal Defense Association. All rights reserved. For more information on Homeschooling a Struggling Learner or the Home School Legal Defense Association please contact us at:

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